Wednesday, October 26, 2011
A Revaluation of William Morris's Influence in Japan.
By Chiaki Ajioka
The Mingci movement, which began in Japan in the "I 920s and continues today, has
almost always been discllssed as onc which revolved entirely around Yanagi Soctsu
(1889-1961), a religious philosopher and the apparent founder of the movement.:!
The movement. and Yanagi's theory on the beauty of folk crafts, have been known
to the West particularly after World \'(far 11 through a number of publications in
English, the most famous being The Unknown Craftsman, adapted by Bcrnard Leach
and first published in 1972.3 Nlore recendy, two rouringexhibitions based on Yanagi's
collection at the Japan Folkcrafr Museum (Mingeikan), have been organised in the
West: Mingei: The Living Tradition in Japanese Arts (Glasgow, Sunderland and
London, 1991-92) and Two Centuries of Japanese Folk Art (Massachusetts,
Nebraska, Cal;fornia and Texas, 1995-97).
Yanagi presented his craft aesthetic in a series of articles published in 1927. It
consisted of a number of principles: first, that the purest beauty of craft is found
among ordinary objects; second, that the essence of the beauty of ordinary crafts is
their simplicity of shape, warmth of character and spirit of service (i.e. case of use);
third, that their beauty springs nor from the creativity of the individual producers
hut from the concerted efforts of the multitudes over generations; fourth, that their
beauty is thus free from the individualism which has caused the degradation of art
and crah, and is therefore superior to works of art bearing individual names; fifth,
that the characteristics of their beauty come from the fact that they are made in large
quantities so the economy of the production process drives individual fancy out of
the objects· the producers, therefore, were not conscious of the beauty they create;
and sixth, that because it is impossible to return to the unconscious past in this age
of consciousness, the future of the crafts can only rest on individual producers. To
achieve the purest beauty of craft, however, the individual craft artist muSt strive to
erase his or her individuality and surrender to the power from without.
Curiously, until recently there had been few critical studiesofYanagi and the Mingei
movement in either Japan or the \Vest. For most people, Japanese or non-japanese,
Yanagi's vast knowledge of \'V'estern philosophy and religion, and of numerous
difficult Buddhist texts, perhaps seemed too daunting to allow them to criticise him.
In addition, rhe body of his writings includes his answers to, and counter attacks
against, criticisms made during his lifetime. There are questions, however, which have
been repeatedly asked but remain unans\\'cred - such as rhe vexing problem of the
position of individual craft artists (such as Hamada Sh6ji, Kawai Kanjiro, Serizawa
Keisuke and Munakata Shiko) wirhin a movement which considered the beauty of
folk crafts superior to works by individual craft arrists.4
However, when one steps back from Yanagi's actions and writings, and places the
Mingei movement in rhe contexr of the wider contemporary development of the crafts
in japan, one begins to sce a different picture in which most of these important
quesrions are answered. In most publications on the Mingei movement, its hisrory is
described as commencing with Yanagi when he, together with Hamada Sh6ji and
Kawai Kanjir6, coined the word mingei (craft with the characteristics of common
people). However, this narrative ignores the significance of the earlier development
from which the notion of mingei sprang. Why this is so will become clearer later in
The origin of what we caB the Mingei movement can be traced back to the time
when Bernard Leach took up pottery, which was early in the 19105.5 Around this
time Tomimoto Kenkichi, a progressive student of architecture and design, acted as
an interpreter for Leach and his teacher Kcnzan, and then began making pottery
himself.6 The style of this pottery was derived from old English folk art and other
Western and Middle-Eastern traditions. Tomimoto became acquainted with these
traditions at the Sourh Kensington Museum (now the V & A), and while travelling
;n the M;ddle East between 1908 and 1910.
Leach and Tomimoto not only experimented in pottery but in prints and other
crafts, and designed exhibitions in an unconventional manner. Their works and
activities were innovatory, and as such had an extremely strong and lasting impact
on many youngJapanese artists and craftsmen. For some time, this younger generation
of artists had been seeking new kinds of expression that would reflect their recently
established, largely \Vesternised, urban life. Their works struck a sympathetic chord
in a new consciousness among the artistic community. This new consciousness, which
one may call a modern culture, emerged among the urban intellectuals from the
beginning of the century. One important clement of this new culture may be seen as
exoticism. Living in a now fully developed urban society in which information about
Western cultures and art movements was readily available, these intellectuals began
to see not only foreign cultures bur also their own past, their rural culture, as exotic.
In this context, one must poinr out the effect of Japan's colonisation of Taiwan in
1905 and annexation of Korea in 1910. A strong sense of cultural superiority often
accompanied this taste for exoticism; for example, Masaki Naohiko, the president
of the Tokyo School of Fine Arts, spoke thus of 'native crafts' in 1913:
Recently, natives' art has become fashionable. As our culture becomes more
advanced, people begin to prefer objects which represent the opposite. As
everythlllg from the social structure to our everyday life is becoming more and
more complicated and sophisticated, and so is our work, it is natural that we seek
our repose in simpler objects.?
Masaki illustrated this with pictures from his collection - mostly from the South
Pacific, North America and the Middle East.
One of the artists on whom Leach and Tomimoto had a strong impact was Hamada
Sh6ji (1894-1978). Hamada went to a technical school to study ceramics, but was
determined to make pottery in the style developed by Leach and Tomimoto rather
than in the highly tefined and skill-oriented styles of traditional Japanese cetamics.
Hamada visited Leach and offered help in setting up a kiln at St Ives in Cornwall.
Here Hamada - who grew up in Tokyo and worked in Kyoto - met British artists and
intellectuals, such as Eric Gill, who chose to live the simple life in the country.s They
served their guests not with Doulton or Wedgwood ware but with locally produced
slipware plates and bowls which were in perfect harmony with their surroundings.
This was the direction in which Hamada was determined to proceed. On his return
to Japan in 1924, Hamada began foraging in antique shops and markets in Kyoto
for pieces to his taste and for his creative use.9 In other ~words, his experience in the
West opened his eyes to objects which were otherwise taken for granted in Japan.
Hamada's behaviour at first puzzled his friend Kawai Kanjiro, who had e::stablished
himself as an extremely skilled cera mist yet was not satisfied with his work and was
searching for a new direction. Yanagi Soetsu was also living in Kyoro at the time.
The three men quickly discovered their shared interest in simple folk crafts, and a
strong friendship was formed. It was during this period that Yanagi developed his
It is important to note, however, that Hamada Shoji had doubts about Yanagi's
Mingei theory being used as a formula for appreciating all art and craft. lo Yanagi's
theory was a synthesis of his previous spiritual journey in search of truth through
religion, science and psychology. When he 'discovered' the beauty of folk crahs, he
identified his aesthetic with spiritual truth. The notion that ordinary crafts made by
ordinary artisans for use in everyday life could have a supreme beauty was a kind of
enlightenment for those who read Yanagi's passionate writings. The lack of logic in
some of his arguments was overlooked. His was a revolutionary theory which
completely overturned the conventional artistic hierarchy.
The similarities bctween Morris's writings and Yanagi's Mingei theory are
unmistakable. Yanagi, however, insisted on the originality of his ideas, declaring that
he had not known of Morris's or Ruskin's ideas before he formulated his own theory.
Most of Yanagi's followers do not question the validity of this daim. l1 Western
scholars, on the other hand, have tended rosee a strong influence of Morris on Yanagi.
Brian l\1oeran has been the most persistent advocate of this view. 12 Elizabeth Frolet,
a French artist and scholar, is another who considers that Yanagi's inspiration came
largely from Morris.1.l
My view is that the circumstances in which Yanagi's theory was formed suggest
that he could not have been unaware of Morris and his ideas. However, I also believe
that there are too many other Eastern and Western ideas which certainly influenced
Yanagi to say that Morris's was the main influence on him. For example, thete is a
striking resemblance between Emile M5.le's representation of the Gothic craftsmen
faithfully following the rules of image production· in his book The Gothic Image:
Religious Art ju France in the Thirteenth Cel1tury (1902) - and Yanagi's description
of the selfless artisan who unconsciously created beauty. This has somehow escaped
the notice ofMingei hisrorians. although they know that Yanagi read and wrote about
Male's book some years before forming his Mingei theory.
Some people, including Bernard Leach, but particularly Japanese scholars such as
Mizuo Hiroshi and Jugaku Bunsho. hold that Yanagi actually surpassed Morris in
that Yanagi 'raised' the aesthetic appreciation of folk crafts to a spirituallevel. 14 For
those who believe that spiritual discourse has a higher value than artistic discourse,
it may be so. One may argue, however, that by presenting a personal aesthetic as
universal truth, Yanagi created confusion. Firstly. he completely cur off his aesthetic
frolll history and made it a kind of gospel which claimed that once your eyes were
opened to this truth. you were ablc to understand beauty. This was precisely what
Hamada feared and warned against. To the extent that Yanagi's writings opened up
new possibilities of seeing beauty in objects that had never been considered beautiful.
this provided the freedom of a modern sensibility. Yer, at the same time as Yanagi
did so, he shackled his readers to his formula - a pre-set value which determined what
was beautiful and what was not.
Another serious problem with Yanagi's theory, which Hamada pointed out, was
that when Yanagi illustrared his argument with examples of folk craftworks, he did
nor fully explain why he selected them our of rhe rens of thousands of other objects
of similar kinds which would also apparently satisfy his criteria for beautiful objects.
The fact that they were selected by Yanagi with his celebrated connoisseurship was
not mentioned, as Yanagi wanted to generalise from the objects' beauty rather than
to draw attention to his own good taste.
Hamada's criticisms were very important as they anticipated the direction in which
Mingei theory would develop. By the time he voiced his concern in 1931, a new
movemenr was emerging, in Tottori, a coastal ciry on the Sea of Japan, led by Yoshida
Sh6ya, an ear, nose and throat doctor and ardent admirer of Yanagi. Yoshida
interpreted Yanagi's theory as a practical manual for appreciating and creating beauty;
he and others like him believing that if the older artisans produced beautiful objects
through repetition of the same shapes and patterns, properly guided artisans would
also be able to produce beautiful objects even in the modern age. These were the
people who eventually overwhelmed the more cautious readers of Yanagi's writings
and became the mainstream Mingei movement, particularly after the war. For them,
the movement started when Yanagi first perceived the beauty of folk crafts.
The earlier group, Leach, TomimotO, Hamada, Kawai and Yanagi, shared their
love and admiration of folk crafts. The individualistic pursuits of craft artisans (as
most of them were) happily coexisted with their admiration for extraordinary pieces
of old folk ware. Yoshida Sh6ya and others who became the mainstream Mingei
movement, however, held that one should despise individualistic crafts, because
Yanagi despised them. Ironically, it was the high profile of the artists under its wing,
like Hamada and others, and later, Munakata Shik6 or Serizawa Keisuke, that
promoted the Mingei movement as a whole. How, then, did these artists and craft
artists reconcile their position in a movement which, as a principle, condemned
individualism? The answer was that they did not take Yanagi's theory at its face value
and, contrary to popular belief, did not let his theory guide their work. As to Hamada
and Kawai, for example, they simply shared Yanagi's taste for 'extraordinary mingei'.
The younger craft artists of the movement, on the other hand, were fostered by
Yanagi's discernment and encouragement, as well as the brotherhood-like support
within rhe group. In this light, it is significant that Kuro da Tatsuaki, a woodwork
artist who set up a cooperative (under Yanagi's suggestion) in 1927, claimed that it
was Shoya, rather than Yanagi, who popularised the word mingei. 15
To conclude the first point: once the self-contradictory nature of Yanagi's Mingei
theory and the different degrees of his influence (or non-influence) on the members
of the movement are acknowledged, it follows that a discussion of Morris's influence
on Yanagi and the Mingei movement now needs to be more specific as to how the
influence was effected and to what degree.
Yanagi and his Mingei theory were not the major recipient of Morris's influence
in terms of the development of modern Japanese crafts. A more significant and farreaching
influence of Morris's ideas and practice can be observed in Tomimoto
Kenkichi, a student of architecture and design who became a potter. Inui Yoshiaki
wrote of Tomimoro in 1986:
The core task in modernising ceramics, that is, to break through rhe practice of
copying traditional styles, and to establish the concept of originality, was first
achieved by Tomimoro, and he did it in a most spectacular manner. 16
Tomimoto is usually considered to be the one who bridged the gap between Morris
and Yanagi by introducing Morris's ideas to him. Tomimoto wrote a two-part article
on .Morris which was publjshed in 1912 in a very influential an magazine called
Bijutsu Shi"po. There is a general unwillingness to acknowledge Morris's influence
on Tomimoto himself, however. The single ground for this unwillingness, it seems,
is the fact that Tomimoro once wrote that he had been disappointed to find no
originality in Morris's workY
Tomimoto was the champion of originality in craft design. He is famous for
his aphorism 'never make patterns from patterns', and. faithful to this motto, he
took pride in drawing from nature to create all the patterns for his craft. Because
of his commitment to originality, his above comment on Morris has been taken
out of conrext, and as a consequence his repeated praise of Morris and
acknowledgment of his debt to Morris have been all but ignored. One can fairly
argue that Tornimoto was an independent craft artist, and his debt to Morris in
his practice as 3 craft artist lay deeper than his introduction in print of Nlorris's
ideas to the Japanese public. My intention here is to highlight Morris's influence
on Tomimoto as he interpreted Morris, rather than to examine whether his
interpretation was valid. Tomirnoto was by no means a scholar of Morris, and
one must nO[ overestimate his competence in the English language as well as the
research opportunities during his limited sojourn in Britain (twelve months from
December 1908 and less than a month in April 1910 before returned to Japan).
Let us look at twO aspects of Morris's influence on Tomimoto here. The first is
Morris's approach to crafrmaking in which he mastered various skills while
always keeping them under the control of his aesthetic. In the 19105, craft
production in Japan was strongly dominated by the convenrional idea that skill
was the most essential value in crafrwork. When Tomimoto adopted Morris's
attitude, it became the fundamental power in breaking through this concept of
craft production in Japan.
I found [Morris's wallpaper designsj very interesting when I first saw them. As I
became familiar with them, I came to be fascinated with them. The noble taste of
the serious and gentlemanly artist deeply impressed me. 1S
When I think of the time and effort Morris had taken, without help or teaching
from others, in dissecting the details [of old carpets} and in carrying out many trials
until he could weave them on his own, my respect for this man seems to acquire
even more lustre. 19
In faCI, on returning to Japan, Tomimoto took out his great-grandmother's old loom
from storage and himself began weaving.
IMorrisl overcame great difficulties in having various products made in the way
he wanted them. The works which he himself patterned - in various materials such
as silk, carron, linen or wool - show me, apart from their noble artistic value, that
Morris trusted himself and was faithful to himself.l°
A revelation came to Tomimoto when he saw chintz and paintings hung side by side
at the South Kensington Museum. The display struck home the idea that art and craft
have the same value. Tomimoto concluded:
'The appeal of the individualiry of the artist' or 'things that are infinitely
beautiful' must be recognised not only in paintings and sculpture bur also in
weaving, metalwork and all other craftwork. Morris was a forerunner like no
other in perceiving this, and J feel that he showed us the way through his own
Tomimoto thus learned from Morris his 'let's see what can be done' attitude, that
is, to believe only in one's own taste when creating objects and follow it through. In
Japan, this was a radical departure from the long-established craft-making practice,
and Tomimoto immediately met strong resistance from the craft community. In fact,
when Tomimoto devised a vase without a neck, other potters sneered at him, saying
that he had only done so because he was not skilled enough to make the neck. On
the other hand, his unconventional experiments and his numerous thought-provoking
essays liberated many young craft artists from conventional ideas and practices. He
was not alone in claiming that artists should follow their own taste and not any
prescribed rules. But he was the first and certainly the most influential one in the field
of the crafts. There were a number of craft movementS developing during the 19105
and 1920s, and those who initiated these movements were often influenced by
Tomimow's progressive ideas and sensitivity.
As well as his commitment to the originality and integrity of the artist, social
conscience was also fundamental to Tomimoto's life and work. He was deeply
interested in Morris's socialist activities and conducted research into this aspect of
his work while in London. Until after the war, however, he was not prepared to
publicly admit this, nor publish his research, as this would certainly have meant
imprisonment.22 One suspects that Tomimoro read Morris's lectures on art and
society, and wished to contribute to Morris's cause in his individual capacity. This
led him to turn to the possibility of mass-producing his designs so that people who
could not afford his expensive pots could still enjoy his work. As early as 1917 he
This year, I began to desire to make craft which can be used by anyone for everyday
life, at the lowest price possible. This is a very important matter for me, and I think
it will have an important role in the direction I will proceed in. 2J
He also wrote to Leach in ] 918:
Since last year, I have been thinking about this: decorative arts must not be separate
from everyday life. If people create decorative arts without thinking about everyday
life, the work will be mere toys for grown-ups... I want to make cheap objects particularly
tableware. And I want to provide people'\vith as much of it as I can.
The quality of my vessels will certainly suffer, but to combat ordinary wares,l must
have low prices as the weapon.H
Tomirnoto attempted mass production in different ways - from drawing designs
himself 011 large quantities of bases made by others, to providing originals to have
them reproduced. His efforts during the greater parr of the 1920s were focused on
devising patterns which were easy ro copy. In 1929, as his first large-scale experiment,
he went to Shigaraki, one of the old pottery regions, and drew iron-glaze patterns on
thrown plates. Tomimoto was living in Tokyo around this time. and it became an
annual event for him to leave Tokyo's cold winter for warmer pottery-producing
regions and draw designs on a large number of bases made by skilled artisans.
Tomimoto encountered many difficulties, however, and envied Morris for what he
thought was lacking in himself: 'What 1 admire most about William Morris is his
power to unite and ability to lead'.H Bur the real cause of his frustration was the fact
that he was ahead of his time. After the war, in 1947. he recalled:
Abour thirty years ago I made medium-size plates for use in the kitchen in ceramicproducing
areas like Seto and sold them at around fifty sen each. The next year,
however, those plates were sold as a kind of antique ware, at forty or fifty yen each
"approximately 100 times the valueJ. I was saddened that things had gone in a
completely different direction.26
Yet he continued to persist with his experiments with mass production. In 1957, he
created a brand called Tomisen under which his original works were mass-produced
and distributed through a large craft company. Unfortunately, production ceased in
the mid 1960s, soon after Tomimoto's death. Today, a brand called Tomihana,
ceramics with copies of Tomimoto's patterns, is sold by the same company (Japan
Tomimoto was not the only artist who learned from Morris. But it was through
this remarkable individual that Morris's ideas were made relevant for Japan, at a time
when the modern Japanese spirit was ready to absorb them.
I This article is an edited version of the paper of the same title presented atthe Morris
Centenary Conference at Oxford in June 1996. All Japanese names in the main
text appear surname followed by given name.
2 This is true in both Japanese and Western literature.
J Published by Kodansha International, Tokyo.
4 This problem caused the split in the movement in 1953 when Miyakc Tadaichi, a
dedicated Mingei activist. left Yanagi'sJapan Folk Craft Association and established
a museum in which he displayed only folk crafts made by anonymous artisans.
, Bernard Leach (1887-1979) arrived in Japan in 1909 after his encounter wirh
Takamura Koraro, arguably the most significant artist in modern Japanese art
6 For a brief introduction of Tomimoto and his ideas, see Yuko Kikuchi, 'Tomimmo
Kenkichi', Crafts, no.148, 1997, pp. 22-23.
7 Bijutsu Shimpo, vo!. 12,00.6, p. 7.
8 Bernard Leach, Hamada: Pofter, (TokyolNew York: Kodansha Inrcrnarional1990
[firsr edition 1975]), pp. 131-32.
9 Ibid., p. 149.
10 Ibid., p. 168. Also see K6gei, no. 1 (Tokyo: Rakuy6d61931), p. 29.
11 I am aware that Yuko Kikuchi has challenged this common Japanese view in her
recent publications: see for example, 'A Japanese William l\1orris: Yanagi S6etsu
and Mingei Theory' in The journal of the \,(!illiam Morris Society, XII, 2 (Spring
1997), pp. 39-45.
Il For example, see 'Yanagi, Morris and Popular Art', Ceramic Review, no. 66, 1980,
pp. 25-26; 'Bernard Leach and the Japanese Folk Craft Movement: the Formative
Years' ,journal ofDesign History, vcl. 2, nos. 2&3, '1989, pp. 141-42; 'Oriemalism
and the Debris of Western Civilisation: Popular Art Movements in Britain and
Japan', Europe & the Orient, D. Gerstle and A. Miller (eds.), (Canberra: The
Humanities Research Centre (994), pp. 36-37.
13 'Mingei: The Word and the Movement', Mingei; The Living Traditiol1 ifJjapanese
Arts [exhibirion caralogue], (Tokyo! New York: Kodansha Inrernational 1991), p.
14 The comment by Leach was made during an interview with Professor Masaaki
Maeda, on the latter's visit to St Ives in 1973. I discussed this point with Professor
Maeda twice in 1992; Jugaku Bunsho, 'Uiriamu Morisu to Yanagi Saersu', Kogei,
no. 100,1939, pp. 27-30.
15 Kuroda Tarsuaki interview, recorded at Asahi Hall, Kyoto, 1976. A copy of this
tape was kindly provided by Kuroda's son Kenkichi.
16 Inui Yoshiaki, Tomimoto Kenkichi, [exhibition catalogue], (Asahi Shinbunsha
1986), p. 17l.
17 •Autobiography' in Jroe-jiki; Tomomoto Kenkichi, (Tokyo: Japan Agency for
Culrural Affairs 1969), p. 72.
Ig Tsujimoro Isamu (cd.), Tomil1loto Kenkichi Chosakusha, (Kyoto: Satsuki Shoho
1981), p. 423.
19 Ibid., p. 439.
'0 Ibid., p. 436.
'1 Ibid., pp. 445-6.
Z1'Autob'lography', op. C.lr., p. 72.
Z3 Ibid., p. 515.
24 From an unpublished Ietrer, courresy of Tomimow Kenkichi Memorial Museum,
2S Tomimoto Kenkichi Chosakushu, op. cic., p. 526.
" Ibid., p. 614..